‘For the Ashes of his Fathers, And the Temples of his Gods’. Or is it something else that makes a soldier fight? – Part II

By Sonia Bhatia and Kamaldeep Singh Sandhu

The ritual of training and leadership works best for a military group (Credit Image: CC0 Creative Commons)



Part I of this article had argued that shared political views and motivations do not shape soldiers’ actions in battlefield. Instead, their actions are defined by more immediate things such as the group survival, deprivation, fatigue and fear for life and limb. In addition, it argued that the combat effectiveness of a squad, section, platoon or a company is derived from its cohesiveness and training, which does not depend upon any cultural or linguistic basis. Part II of the article will highlight that groups are formed through rituals, and that the ritual of training and leadership works best for a military group.


Group formation through Rituals

Ardant du Picq, a nineteenth century French army officer wrote that

‘From living together, and obeying the same chiefs, from commanding the same men, from sharing fatigue and rest, from cooperation among men who quickly understand each other in the execution of warlike movements, may be bred brotherhood, professional knowledge, sentiment and above all unity’.[1]

One of the most effective ways to form cohesive groups is through ‘Rituals’. Tarak Barkawi rightly states that living and acting like a group, in daily and periodic rituals, creates group feeling. Groups do not require an outside social basis or an essentialised identity like nation, religion or caste to account for their solidarity or common behaviour. Rituals exercise their power when a group simply participates in them. Tarak also mentions the Australian concept of Mana – a ‘vague power’ or ‘force’ that seems to flow through and among participants in ritual, conjoining group members, their totems and their god, and inspiring sentiments of unity, cooperation and sacrifice. Fed by daily and periodic ritual activities performed under common symbols and identities, formal and informal, mana is what military professionals call esprit de corps. Thus, rituals are a ‘strategic form of socialisation’. In military terms it boils down to nothing else but ‘effective training’.

Training, which occupies a great deal of time in military calendars, achieves a dual purpose of both ritualised solidarity-building as well as disciplinary instruction in taking the correct actions in combat.[2] Training may be more technically grounded, focusing on the geography and climate of the area of operation. Training can also be superimposed with the principles and ideals, such as ‘fighting for the common good of the population’ and ‘the victory of good over evil’ and are common to everyone irrespective of their religion or social background. Soldiers easily identify with these principles and ideals as they were a part of their upbringing and may have been a reason why they chose to join the army.



Besides training, another crucial factor that kneads any military sub-unit together, irrespective of its social composition is effective leadership. Officers, and in particular, commanders, play a crucial role as personified symbols of collective groups. Commanders, such as Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Napoleon Bonaparte, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and many others, can also symbolise the identity and spirit of military formations.[3] War time historiography is full of military leaders who, through trust, character, courage and competence, have brought out the highest virtues of all who followed them. Since early years of warfare, irrespective of the nature of armaments in use, tactics and strategy, organisational structure, training and discipline, the political construction of states and the social makeup of the armies, the characteristics of leadership have not changed. Group solidarity rituals are just as important as creating strong leaders whom soldiers can follow.


Conclusion: War and Political Rationality

The primary group theory (as explained in Part I of this  article) and the national narratives of sacrifice, the two sources of fighting spirit of a soldier, are often connected through a historical framework. The martial antagonism towards an adversary is invoked through the way national histories of war and armies are written. Unfortunately, the inquiry, whether the adversary is real or perceived, is left to current political narratives, also often used to justify the rationality of the government’s actions. This is where the magical language of national sacrifice becomes necessary and the belief in such narratives important, simply because the population finds it appealing. Whether this is correct approach or not, remains debatable and varies from one region to another and from one society to another.

Nevertheless, it is always better to generate battlefield effectiveness from strong primary groups created from rituals of training and leadership rather than from any other source. Once trained, a soldier is motivated enough to do his job as long his/her primary group is strong and intact and there is a strong leader to follow. The battlefield generated sources are good enough to shape a soldier’s combat behaviour. A soldier’s personal idea of nationalism and politics alone may not work, as each man all by himself may just contribute as much as a cog in the wheel. It is however, the coordinated action of each cog that makes the wheel turn. Same is true for any formation. This coordination is only possible with an institutionalised training program. An effective training program focusses on tactics and operations rather than on ideologies or political narratives. Tarak Barkawi sums it up appropriately by saying that

To represent soldiers and their actions in the service of one or another nationalist cause is to reduce war to a political rationality. The problem is that war, and the fate of people caught up in it, exceeds politics.[4]


Raised in an army household, Sonia Bhatia is a Post Graduate Diploma holder in Public Relations and Human Resource Management from the University of Madras. She graduated in BA, Health and Nutrition from Delhi University. She has been brought up in a traditional Army family which has seen generations of men and women serving in the Army and the Air Force. Her experiences and interests have been close to the social structure of the Army Regimental life. She also has five years of work experience in Human Resource Management in the corporate sector, which enriched her with the contrast of the social structure that exists outside the army.

Kamaldeep Singh Sandhu is a doctoral student at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. He is currently researching on India’s defence diplomacy in the 21st century. His other research interests include South Asian security and military culture. Kamaldeep is an alumni of National Defence Academy, Pune as well as Army War College, Mhow. He has served as an officer with the Indian army’s Parachute Regiment for ten years. Thereafter he graduated in MA, ‘War in the Modern World’ from the department of War Studies at King’s College London in 2014. You can find him on Twitter @kamal_sandhu78



[1] Barkawi, Tarak, ‘Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017, p.166 and (Du Picq, Battle Studies, p. 96)

[2] (Barkawi, 2017), p.179

[3] (Barkawi, 2017), p.181

[4] (Barkawi, 2017), p. 119


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